Monday, 12 November 2001

Macedonia Teeters on the Edge of Peace

I wrote this article from Skopje for TIME magazine, which ran it on 12 November 2001.

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"There will be problems," NATO spokesman Mark Laity said back in late September. "There will be violence. There will be incidents." Laity was absolutely right: On Nov. 11, Albanian rebels clashed with government forces yet again, this time leaving three policemen dead and dozens of Macedonians held hostage near the city of Tetovo.

Before this flare up, NATO's Essential Harvest operation had ostensibly fulfilled its task of collecting thousands of weapons from the rebel Albanians of the National Liberation Army (NLA). The mission was being replaced by operation Amber Fox, the German-led NATO effort to protect international observers. But this latest incident has been accompanied by the appearance of a new group, the Albanian National Army (ANA), which claimed responsibility for the killings of the policemen. No one can be sure what role they will now play.

The Ohrid peace agreement ended six months of armed conflict between Macedonian government forces and Albanian insurgents. However, it quickly became just one more thing for both sides to argue about. Those arguments have delayed ratification of the peace accord in parliament, which was supposed to have occurred within 45 days of the accord's signing.

Many are frustrated by what they see as the Macedonian hardliners' use of every possible issue to postpone a vote on constitutional amendments granting Albanians greater rights as outlined at Ohrid. This has not only angered the Albanians, leading them to boycott some parliamentary sessions, but it has also annoyed the international community. E.U. peace brokers Javier Solana and Chris Patten and NATO chief George Robertson have all openly expressed their frustration with Macedonian delaying tactics over the past three months.

A notable example of such tactics came in mid-October when the speaker of parliament, Stojan Andov, announced he would not add the amendment debate to the parliamentary agenda until he had clarified the mysterious disappearance of 12 Macedonian civilians during the fighting. Such a justification for a reassessment of Ohrid may seem reasonable enough on the face of it, but the argument holds little water with Albanians, who have over 50 of their own missing civilians to find.

The dramatically altered international landscape since August is certainly playing a role here: Macedonian efforts to revise the Ohrid agreement clearly intensified in the wake of Sept. 11. It seems Macedonian hardliners felt they could renegotiate a better deal by linking Albanian insurgents to "terrorists" in general and to bin Laden in particular. Thus far, however, their efforts and the efforts of a good chunk of the Macedonian-language media to make that link, have failed to come up with anything even remotely resembling hard evidence, and the U.S. isn't buying it.

Under strong pressure from NATO and the E.U., the Macedonian parliament may finally ratify the agreement and constitutional changes this week — more than six weeks late. But many are worried about what the past three months of needless delay on ratification portends. Political analyst Veton Latifi told me, "The slow and painful foot-dragging on ratification means that implementation of the agreement will also be slow and painful. The risk for re-escalation of the conflict in Macedonia is still very much there regardless."

Eyes are now focused on the next general election, scheduled for late January, which many see as a potential flashpoint because current leaders are flagging in the polls and looking to boost their popular support in any way they can. According to Latifi, "There are certain political forces in both communities that are desperate to hang on to power, and they will resort to anything, even instigating new violence." It is quite possible that the Interior Ministry's recent move to secure an alleged mass grave — the event that sparked the violence in which the three policemen were killed — was just such a provocation toward local Albanians.

What may finally bring about a lasting peace, though, is exhaustion among the wider public. Talking to both Albanian and Macedonian journalists in Skopje, I heard both use one phrase repeatedly: "People are just sick of it all." People are sick of Albanian- and Macedonian-language media that never seem to tell the truth. People are sick of the extremists' bombings and other small-scale acts of violence clearly intended to provoke a civil war the wider public has no interest in. And, most importantly, people are sick of politicians who seem to be playing a Milosevic-style game of promoting conflict to stay in power. But if Albanians and Macedonians can agree on just that one point — that politicians on all sides have been leading them into a war they don't want — then peace is still a realistic possibility.

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